Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Too many cooks, too many kitchens
E. Finn, Jr. and Michael
romantic attachment to “local control of public education,” the reality is that
the way it works today offers a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand,
district-level power constrains individual schools; its standardizing,
bureaucratic, and political force ties the hands of principals, stopping them
from doing what’s best for their pupils with regard to budget, staffing, and
curriculum. On the other, local control isn’t strong enough to clear the
obstacles that state and federal governments place before reform-minded board
members and superintendents in the relatively few locales where these can even
individuals can sometimes make it work, at least for a while: Michelle Rhee
(backed by Adrian Fenty) in the District of Columbia; Joel Klein (backed by
Michael Bloomberg) in New York City; Arne Duncan (backed by Richard Daley) in
Chicago; Jerry Weast (abetted by a rising budget) in Montgomery County,
Maryland. Readers can surely cite additional examples. But these are the
exceptions that prove the rule.
The rule is that
education-policy decisions are made in so many places—each with some capacity
to initiate change but with even greater capacity to block it—that there’s
really nobody “in charge.” Some will say that’s a tribute to our traditions of
democratic control, checks and balances, pluralism, and federalism. Others will
say it’s just a mighty wasteful and ineffectual way to run a system that is
widely believed to need a thorough makeover.
Some have described
education governance in the United
States as a “layer cake,” others as a
“marble cake” (because the jurisdictions and zones of control of different
governments and agencies are so jumbled). Still others favor the image of a
“loosely coupled train” where movement at one end doesn’t necessarily produce
any motion at the other. We find a more apt analogy in a vast restaurant or
food court with multiple kitchens, each thronged with many cooks, yet with no
head chef in command of even a single establishment much less the entire
It’s well past time to rethink, re-imagine, and
reinvent education governance for the twenty-first century.
Consider so seemingly straightforward
a decision as which teacher will be employed to fill a seventh-grade opening at
the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One
might suppose that Lincoln’s
principal, or perhaps the school’s top instructional staff, should decide which
candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom. But under the
typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is veto wholly
unsuitable candidates. (And often not that, considering seniority and “bumping
rights” within districts, their collective-bargaining contracts and,
frequently, state law.) The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting
and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices
(which may be set by an “independent”—and probably union and ed-school
dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably
enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that
mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same
fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or music.
Washington gets into the act, too, with
“highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end
of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the
principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited)
And teacher selection is
but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same litany
can be invoked for special education, for the budgeting and control of a
school’s funds, or for approved approaches to school discipline. (Not to mention
a more literal “too many cooks” issue: What to serve for lunch in the school
great leader or change-agent would want to become a school principal under
these circumstances? Or a local superintendent? Or even a teacher? Well, maybe
in a comfy (and probably smug) suburban setting. But not in the places that
most need outstanding talent.
American education doesn’t need czars or dictators. Separation-of-powers and
checks-and-balances are important elements of our democracy. Kids and communities
do differ and there needs to be flexibility in the system to adapt and adjust
to singular circumstances, changing priorities, and dissimilar needs. But
today, our public-education system lacks flexibility and nimbleness of all
sorts. Surely that’s not what the founders—or Horace Mann—had in mind. And it’s
most definitely not what our children need.
It’s well past time to rethink, re-imagine, and
reinvent education governance for the twenty-first century. We’d better get
|Click to listen to commentary on the today's education-governance system from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Opinion: Two steps forward, one step back
By Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton
Ohio’s first charter schools opened in 1997, they have been at the center of
some of the state’s hottest and most politically contentious debates about
education. The past year brought still more examples of charter-linked
2010 elections were very good for Buckeye Republicans, with John Kasich winning
the governor’s race (replacing Ted Strickland who had been a charter
adversary throughout his four-year term). Republicans also took control of
the House while expanding their Senate majority.
immediately, GOP lawmakers set out to make the Buckeye State more inviting to
charter schools. Governor Kasich’s budget proposals offered a solid plan for
not only increasing the number of charters in Ohio but also
boosting their quality. Crucial elements included:
successful operators to clone good schools and channeling fairer funding into
- Leaning hard
on authorizers to fix or close failing schools and banning their replication;
schools’ ostensibly independent governing boards clearly in charge of any
outside organizations that they engaged to run their education programs.
vision for quality along with quantity excited us and many others in Ohio and beyond. The Buckeye State was finally positioning
itself to become a true leader in the charter sector rather than a troubled
sector plagued by too many mediocre schools.
the House issued
its version of the budget in April and with it came an enormous risk that
charter advocates in Ohio would again shoot themselves in
the foot—and their pupils in the heart. The House proposal, pushed by friends
of school choice, sought to neutralize authorizers (including Fordham) and
governing boards in the name of efficiency on behalf of well-heeled,
profit-maximizing school operators. The House’s budget would have done away
with any meaningful accountability for school operators just when it seemed
like we might finally move in the right direction.
were not the only ones upset by this. The larger charter-school community
rallied around the need for charter quality in Ohio: The National Alliance for
Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,
and the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, among others, denounced the
much political jockeying and uncertainty, the Senate agreed with the critics
and ultimately purged most of the troubling language from the bill, but not
without conflict, late nights, much sweat, and plenty of spent political
law came out of the budget sausage-maker stronger on some fronts but weaker on
others. Improvements included requiring all charter schools and their
authorizers to be rated by their academic Performance Index (PI) scores. Henceforth,
authorizers with the lowest-achieving 20 percent of students according to the
PI cannot open new schools until they improve or close the ones they have.
Further, the budget allows new charter schools to open in all
bottom-five-percent districts. (Previously, Ohio confined charter start-ups to just
the Big Eight school districts—the state’s largest eight cities—and those
districts rated Academic Emergency and Academic Watch.)
the law also requires the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)
to directly sponsor charter schools once again. (The legislature fired it from
that same role in 2003 after a blistering report from the then-Auditor
of State chronicling the many failings of the department as a sponsor.) There
is no evidence that the department or its board wants the job of authorizing
schools; in fact, they now find themselves facing potential conflicts of
interest, the most bizarre of which is that the agency’s Office of Community
Schools must now hold the same agency’s Office of School Sponsorship accountable
for the performance of its schools and take corrective action against itself as
needed. Far better would be to have the department continue to eschew direct
sponsorship while giving it the resources and mandates to hold all authorizers
accountable for the performance of their schools. One can only assume that ODE
was put back into the role of sponsor because some operators felt they will
authorize schools and not be too demanding or persnickety about performance.
charter-school portfolio: Improving schools—but not fast enough
this uncertain environment, Fordham has continued to operate as a charter-school
authorizer, a role it has performed in Ohio since July 2005. Fordham took on
this responsibility, and continues to embrace it, because we believe there was—and
still is—a dearth of quality authorizers in the state. We also felt that we
could help recruit some decent models to needy neighborhoods and support the
expansion and growth of some of those already here. It has been a tough six
years, which we chronicled last year in Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines.
Fordham first started as an authorizer, our sponsorship portfolio has evolved
considerably. We began with ten schools (all in the Dayton-Cincinnati area)
that collectively served about 2,700 students—all but three of which we
inherited from the Ohio Department of Education after it was
booted from sponsorship in 2003. Most of them were academically troubled. Since
then, we’ve had six schools leave our portfolio, either through closure or by
jumping to other sponsors; we’ve opened one new school only to see it close
after a year; and we’ve successfully birthed two new schools. We currently
sponsor only four of the ten schools that originally signed with Fordham in
did Fordham’s own schools fare in 2010-11? Five of six Fordham-sponsored
schools made academic gains in 2010-11. Three were rated Effective (equivalent
under the Ohio accountability system to a grade of B), two Continuous
Improvement (C), and one Academic Watch (D). Still, while we don’t currently
have any schools in Academic Emergency, 11 percent of the students in our
portfolio were enrolled in a D-rated school (Springfield Academy of
Excellence). Fifty-two percent attended schools rated C while 37 percent
attended schools that earned Bs. This puts us somewhere in the upper-middle of
sponsors in Ohio. Good, but not good enough.
it comes to academic value-added by schools, 57 percent of students in Fordham
schools made “above expected” growth in 2010-11, using Ohio’s relatively
generous (and rather opaque) system for making such calculations. However, 38
percent did not meet expected growth in 2010-11. Compared to the other nine
largest authorizers (by number of students), Fordham claims the highest
percentage of students making “above expected” growth—but also the third
highest percentage of students falling in the “below expected” category. Again:
good, but not good enough.
Big Eight cities, approximately 80 percent of schools (district and charter)
were able to help their students meet or exceed expected value-added gains, but
less than five percent (twenty-five out of 510) hit the state’s PI-score target.
schools have done a decent job of meeting or exceeding value-added growth, but
few are reaching state proficiency expectations. We believe this is in part because
Ohio’s accountability system has been watered down over the years to make it
easier on schools to meet or exceed state expectations and receive decent
ratings. This is in fact a belief shared by state superintendent Stan Heffner
who has, to his credit, been traveling the state and making the case that
Ohio’s current accountability system is plagued by grade
and a bit battered, Fordham continues as an authorizer of Ohio charter schools,
and a vigorous participant in the state’s larger education policy debates.
We’re constantly exploring new options including, at this writing, working to
help some high-quality schools in Ohio expand their efforts (we expect to
authorize two new start-ups in 2012 and two more in 2013). Meanwhile, we’ve
learned a lot about how hard all of this work is to do well, stymied further if
state legislation is poorly written, and we think it critical to share the
lessons along the way – even those lessons we might not really have wanted to
News Analysis: How dollars flow down Santa Monica Boulevard
It's my money; I'll do what I want.
Photo by sushi♥ina
Do well-heeled parents have the right to heap donations
on their students’ public schools to pay for teacher aids, extra library hours,
or a media lab? Of course—though, as the Los
Angeles Times explains, expect a fight. This week’s example comes from the
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where the PTA at one Malibu
elementary school adds over $2,100 per pupil to the school’s coffers compared
with a mere $96 raised at another district elementary twenty miles down the
road. The school board is mulling a plan to centralize all PTA donations,
allowing for more equitable student funding. Our position on school financing
is clear: Funding formulas should include weights that ensure that more public
resources be allotted to higher-need students. But, when it comes to private
dollars, districts and states should tread carefully. If parents want to donate
more, so be it. Barring wealthy parents from education-related giving will only
push them to invest instead in private extracurriculars—or even private schools—thus
completely undermining the equity-based intentions of the embargo. Instead of
this tack, here’s another solution for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School
District: Ride the current wave of “philanthropy philosophy.” (Think: TOMS
Shoes, in which you purchase one item for yourself at a higher cost, so that
the second can be donated.) Or go one further, adopt a “sister schools” policy—look
to D.C. for an example here—linking wealthy schools (and their donations) to a
less affluent building. All in all, that would be pretty close to a win-win.
|Click to hear more ideas on how to handle private donations to public schools from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Not "truly stupid"
Newt Gingrich has issued some crazy statements
since he first took public office in 1979. Yet his latest claim—that we shouldn’t
be “entrapping kids in…child labor laws, which are truly stupid”—isn’t one of
them. In a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Gingrich suggested a “work
study” program for K-12 education: Students could provide low-cost alternatives
to unionized janitors, giving these youngsters work experience, money, and
pride in their schools. This proposal to slacken child-labor laws has drawn
plenty of headlines, and even
more scorn. But there’s something to his logic. Nonprofits like YouthBuild and the ISUS charters in Dayton, OH, in
which students work to complete high school while learning construction skills already
offer successful models of dual academic/job-training programs. The Cristo Rey network
of Catholic schools allows their low-income students to offset tuition
costs—and gain practical job skills—through once-a-week corporate internships. These
models provide more than a paycheck and some on-the-job carpentry or accounting
skills: They give students a better sense of the working world than any personal-finance
or economics course ever could. Gadfly isn’t advocating for eight-year-olds to
don hard hats on Alaska’s oil pipeline—and he doubts that’s what Newt had in
mind, either. But there’s value in skills training and career preparation. Be
careful not to blithely dismiss creative ideas like this.
|Click to listen to commentary on Gingrich's plan from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
News Analysis: Romancing the stone
For months, leaders from LAUSD and the UTLA have
stalled within a deep tunnel of negotiations, unable to reach consensus on,
well, anything. This week, light broke at the end of that dark passageway: Los
Angeles Superintendent John Deasy and the newly elected union president, Warren
Fletcher, have reached a partial agreement. And it’s an exciting one: Under the
new pact, district schools could exercise charter-like autonomy over hiring,
curriculum, and work conditions. If a school wants to diverge from current norms
by, say, altering its salary structure or length of day, neither union nor
district officials can object. (Take note of this innovative approach for
combating union strong-arming: Pitch the reforms to teachers as a respite from
meddling district policies, not just cumbersome
union ones.) So, what catalyzed this union change of heart? Pressure from
charter schools—which hold a 10 percent market share of L.A.’s student
enrollment. According to Fletcher, “There’s been a lot of focus on
out-of-district resources and answers. This is the beginning of moving back to
some semblance of balance.” Before the agreement becomes official, though, it
must be ratified by union membership. Here’s hoping; what a worthy experiment
that would be.
News Analysis: Rockin' the suburbs
Check the original charter-school blueprint.
Specs say "choice for all."
Photo by Will Scullin
As originally conceived twenty years ago, charter
schools were to offer alternatives to the traditional public-school model—maybe
Betsy wants a school that focuses more on drama than the football team or Davey
wants one that prioritizes STEM learning. Somewhere along the way, however,
many states restricted charters to “high need” communities awash in disadvantaged
kids and failing schools. As a result, seventy
percent of charter students are on free-or-reduced-price lunch, and most charters
are urban. But that’s starting to change. Greater numbers of suburban students
are venturing into the halls of charter schools—central Ohio alone had more
than 10,000 suburban and rural students attend charter schools last
year—sparking what Fordham’s Terry Ryan dubbed a “second generation” of
charters. And it couldn’t come fast enough. Like their urban counterparts,
kiddos in suburbia deserve the ability to choose schools that are right for
them. Just ask any of the original architects of the charter theory.
Review: Does School Autonomy Make Sense Everywhere? Panel Estimates from PISA
As education governance rises on the policy
agenda, should American reformers be looking toward greater decentralization or
centralization—or a judicious mix of both? Eric Hanushek, Susanne Link, and
Ludger Woessmann argue that, in a country like the U.S., greater school-level
autonomy offers the best shot at boosting student achievement. Using the four
available rounds of PISA data (2000-09), the trio compared achievement in forty-two
countries with their levels of school-based autonomy, as reported by principals.
(Specifically, they analyzed autonomy of academic content, personnel decisions,
and budget allocations.) Dividing the countries up by GDP per capita, the
authors find that developed nations tend to see spikes in student achievement
when school autonomy increases, while scores in developing countries drop with
greater decentralization. Autonomy works when local leaders have both
an interest in making decisions that benefit students and the capacity to do
so. The stronger governmental institutions and the rule of law, the logic goes,
the more likely leaders are to align their interests with those of their
students. Thus, in richer countries, pairing greater autonomy with test-based
accountability magnified the bump in scores. In short, how education is
governed matters for students. But we told you that already.
|Click to listen to commentary on this NBER paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.
Review: Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life
In February, the “college-for-all” movement was
dealt a mighty blow with the publication of Harvard GSE’s Pathways
to Prosperity report. This new book from Nancy Hoffman, VP of Jobs for
the Future, offers yet another forceful whack. (Insider power-couple scoop: Ms.
Hoffman is married to a lead author of Pathways.)
Though a seemingly admirable crusade, she contends, “college for all” is ill-advised
for a country interested in having an “appropriately skilled and employed
workforce.” (It’s also an anomalous goal, not shared by other countries.) As Hoffman
explains, unemployment rates currently soar, even as employers complain of
difficulty finding candidates with the right skill set. Americans have often
shied away from promoting Vocational Education and Training (VET) programming,
viewing it as classist, even elitist—a system that perpetuates social and
fiscal disparities. However, strong VET initiatives in other nations are
redefining post-secondary options for students. These programs are thoughtful,
rigorous pathways to careers—no longer the “throwaway” tracks for the least
effective students. And they seem to be effective: In Switzerland, 42 percent
of students attaining the highest scores on the PISA exam chose VET enrollment.
High-performing Australia enrolls about 60 percent of its eleventh- and
twelfth-year students in VET programs. Through six case studies, Hoffman
articulates lessons for America as we think through expanding our own
work-based learning programs. The biggest: Ensure constant employer
participation in curricula and certification development and in apprenticeship
placements. For those ready
to revisit the “college-for-all” mandate, this book provides a useful
Review: Testimony on the Federal Role in Education Research: Providing Relevant Information to Students, Parents, and Educators
E. Finn, Jr.
Most of the time,
Congressional hearings on federal education research are just an opportunity
for various interested parties to plead for more money. A couple of weeks back,
however, Rep. Duncan Hunter and the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood,
Elementary and Secondary Education held an unusually candid and (I hope)
fruitful review of this crucial but not-very-sexy policy domain. Terrific
witness list. And outstanding testimony by former IES director Russ Whitehurst,
now of Brookings, who did more than defend his own solid track record in that
role. He pulled no punches regarding research quality (needs to be raised, not
lowered), the American Educational Research Association (another
self-interested and greedy lobby), the (complex but crucial) relationship
between IES and the rest of the Education Department, and the hopelessness of
the regional education laboratories. He also urged Congress not to “try to
dictate how states and LEAs should use findings from research,” about which he’s
mostly right. What he might not be right about are the late, lamented Reading
First program and the future relationship between IES and the National Center
for Education Statistics. Have a look for yourself.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Ending the AEI lockout
Mike and Rick come out swinging after their
Thanksgiving respites. In Pardon the Gadfly, they attack our current governance
model, sympathize with Newt Gingrich, and consider what to do about private
donations to public schools. Amber brings autonomy down to the school level and
Chris requests a State of State Moral Standards.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Ohio needs competition and high standards to elevate its digital-learning marketplace
By Terry Ryan
could argue that 2011 has been the year of “digital learning” across America,
but in fact digital learning has been big business in Ohio for more than a
decade. Lessons from that experience should inform the Buckeye State’s approach
to new digital-learning opportunities that are generating excitement and
opportunities offer ways to help teachers and parents do a better job of
educating children—and at less cost.
But those promises have been on the table for a long time. Indeed, it was this
dual promise that encouraged lawmakers in Ohio and other states to birth
statewide e-schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The best known of these
is the Florida
Virtual School, which now educates over 120,000 students from
across Florida and forty-nine other states.
Ohio took a different approach than Florida. Instead
of a single statewide e-school, it created a marketplace of e-schools…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: The future of educational accountability, as envisioned by eleven leading states
Last week, eleven states applied for waivers from many of
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s most onerous provisions. Their
applications are now online,
ready to be sliced and diced by any willing wonk.…
So what do these eleven states want to do differently
on the accountability front? Particularly when it comes to identifying schools
that should be subject to some sort of sanctions or interventions? Here’s what
the future holds if the Department of Education gives its assent…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: Breakdown in Blighty
- Think pension reform has been hard going in the
States? Yesterday, two-thirds
of Britain’s schools (along with a host of other public-sector entities,
agencies, and offices) shuttered their doors, as Blighty saw its largest strike
in decades. The grievance? Westminster is now asking workers to retire later
and pay more in pension contributions. A sign of things to come?
- Be still Gadfly’s geeky heart. Brookings recently rolled out its
Education Choice and Competition Index—an interactive website for tracking and
comparing districts based on thirteen categories of education policy and
practice. A lot like our own America’s
Best (and Worst) Cities report—but still a lot of fun, and potentially
enlightening about what is and isn’t educationally worthy in your community.
- Gadfly sees Christmas lights and hears the faint
jingle of the Salvation Army bell. It must be the holiday season. And with it,
the season for end-of-the-year best-and-worst lists. To start you off, here’s the best and worst education events of
2011, according to Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. (For their
sake, here’s hoping nothing monumental happens in December.)
- By 2015, Teach For America could hold one-quarter
market share of all teachers in America’s sixty largest cities. Why aren’t
more reformy entrepreneurs trying
to copy this model?
- Interesting, but none too surprising: Teacher-union
membership in Tennessee is
way down since state lawmakers stripped the groups’ collective-bargaining
Sure lessons from abroad are good to note. But,
is still the most innovative country in the world.
Announcement: Putting quality in the driver’s seat
Parents thirst for
high-quality school options from every sector, including charters. Yet, too few
new charters offer the top-notch education that students deserve. To quench
this thirst, a new model for charter growth, “incubation,” has emerged in
several cities, with the potential to boost both quality and quantity.
Interested in learning more? Join us on December 7 from 3:30 to 5:00PM as we
hear from leaders who are running some of the best of these new organizations.
To find out more, or to register, head here.
(The keen-minded folks at Public Impact will be unveiling a report about the
topic at the event as well.)
Announcement: Fordham, Koch, and you
Young libertarians with a soft spot for
education reform: Listen up! Apply for an internship with Fordham this summer
through the Koch Summer Fellow Program, sponsored by the
Institute for Humane Studies. You’ll gain state policy experience through
public-policy seminars and will work with a cool clowder of cats. Find out more here. Applications
are due January 31.
Announcement: Hail to the Buckeye Institute chief
Sure, the Gadfly makes many a convincing point.
But education is just one piece of the public-policy puzzle, right? For those
who found themselves nodding to this notion, the Buckeye Institute for Public
Policy Solutions, a Columbus, OH based free-market think tank, is looking for a
new president. If you’re up to lead the charge to revitalize Ohio through
research on collective bargaining, pension reform, and transparency, click here for more
Announcement: Have a happy hour!
Care about the kids of Washington, D.C.? Love to
schmooze it up with like-minded folks? Can’t wait to bust out that tacky
holiday sweater? Join Fight for Children for a happy hour on December 7 from
6:00 to 8:00PM. (It’s right after our event; perfect timing!) Click here to buy
Featured Fordham Publication: America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents
This study from the Fordham Institute
tackles a key question: Which of thirty major U.S. cities have cultivated a
healthy environment for school reform to flourish (and which have not)? Nine
reform-friendly locales surged to the front: New Orleans, Washington D.C., New
York City, Denver, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth.
Trailing far behind were San Jose, San Diego, Albany, Philadelphia, Gary, and
on to learn more.